While you can break down development or design neatly into a set of positions, product management roles are more idiosyncratic. It’s not uncommon to find product managers in niche roles that have no exact equivalent outside their organization.
Likewise, all of a product manager’s roles aren’t going to fit into traditional job titles (if you’re hoping you can just hire a “development product manager” or a “design product manager” — good luck!).
Here are a few of the different types of product managers — and how each might fit your project.
Different Types of Product Managers by Stage
One common way of looking at mobile app product management is by what stage it serves in the product cycle. A classic example is Simon Wardley’s paradigm, which divides the types of product managers into pioneers, settlers, and town planners. He adopted the concept from tech journalist Robert Cringely. Cringely, who used a different metaphor, likening Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as an invading army
- Elite Commandos set their own rules and do what it takes to get something built — often working on a shoestring budget.
- Soldiers build on the rough work of commandos, turning a garage workshop approach into a successful business, and putting in place “rules and procedures for getting things done — all the stuff that commandos hate.”
- Police maintain the territory conquered by the first two waves by “adding people and building economies and empires of scale.”
While Cringley’s metaphor is a good jumping-off point, Wardley’s paradigm seems even more relevant to mobile app product managers. It covers similar ground, but focuses on stages of growth and scale, rather than conquest.
We’ve also seen a similar conception from Notejoy founder and CEO, Sachin Rekhi, focusing on Builders, Innovators, and Tuners.
To us, product management is a cyclical, organic process. Each stage of growth repeats again, and the skills it takes to build a new product from scratch aren’t that different from the skills it takes to prototype a new feature for an established app. Therefore, we’ve decided to categorize product managers as Planters, Growers, and Harvesters.
These product managers help you early in a cycle. They thrive on starting something new, whether it’s building a mobile prototype, or creating an entirely new company.
The same skills that make planters valuable early on, also help more established companies. Their thirst for innovation ensures your organization doesn’t become bogged down and complacent. Give them the freedom to explore and expand, taking the lead on new apps, organizing design sprints, or experimenting with new workflows and tools.
Once you’ve released your app and seen a community of early adopters shoot up, it’s time to start growing a wider market and focusing on profitability. Your development priorities will shift too, from building new functionality to polishing out the rough edges, building integrations, and solidifying infrastructure.
As the name suggests, growers are ideal product managers for helping your app grow and mature. They’re great at moving you along the technological adoption lifecycle. They intuitively grasp how to break down loads of data into usable metrics, how to test, how to drive growth, and know what to benchmark. They root out inefficiency, optimize your product, and drive profit.
This set of skills enables Growers to improve customer experience. They can turn a small handful of user testing case studies into useful, data driven conclusions, which can help you eliminate obstacles to mass adoption.
Scale is a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem. As your organization continues to grow, your infrastructure can start to groan under its own weight. It’s not enough to have a product anymore — you need the infrastructure to deliver it.
Harvesters can help your mobile app reach full maturity, as a profitable, established market fixture. This could mean building out the backend to accommodate more users, creating more effective processes for patching and updating, or creating a community of users.
Harvesters tend to hold both business acumen and a good deal of technical knowledge. They’re good with data, and at their best, can see both the details and the big picture.
Product Management Superheroes
One flaw in the three stages model is that it doesn’t account for flaws. No product manager is suitable for every role, and strong, perceptive figures often have weaknesses and blind spots. FirstMark Capital Managing Director Catherine Ulrich has a useful product management paradigm that accounts for both what she calls the “Superpower” and “Kryptonite” of each type of product manager.
Here’s our take on her model:
Growth Hackers are the types of product managers who live for growing the user base and setting new benchmarks. Whether it’s driving up download numbers or setting attendance records at events, growth hackers use their understanding of consumer psychology to boost conversions.
Growth Hackers are particularly valuable in industries with a long buyer’s journey. For example, if you’re selling a mobile platform for B2B managed services, your targets may be locked into relationships with vendors.
When they trust your competitors and rely on them for day-to-day operations, just getting them to try your product can be a challenge. Growth Hackers can help you overcome these obstacles, turn curiosity into product demos, and turn those demos into purchases or subscriptions.
However, this emphasis on growth has its downside. In pursuit of short-term goals, Growth Hackers may use techniques that backfire in the long run, such as:
- Overselling your app.
- Emphasizing image at the expense of building a better product.
- Boosting customer numbers in unsustainable ways, such as by turning off auto-billing reminders, or offering discounted rates that never convert into profitable accounts.
To minimize the risks of Growth Hackers, make user advocacy a priority in your organization. You may want to appoint an internal user advocate, setup benchmarks around user satisfaction or do more usability testing to ensure your product remains useful and accessible to your users.
A Community Connector is a good complement to a Growth Hacker. Like Growth Hackers, they practice a type of product management that focuses on psychology.
The difference is that for Community Connectors, building community itself is the goal, whether it’s with customers and partners, or through collaboration within the organization. In an age where businesses are constantly in the spotlight, and brand voice can make or break your company, a Community Connector is always valuable.
The downside, as Ulrich points out, is that Community Connectors may focus on “building a vibrant community at the expense of financial/business goals.” Balance Community Connectors with other roles who optimize for conversions.
If you read our blog or use Proto.io, you’ll know that user flow is a big priority for us. We’re big fans of Workflow Warriors and their uncanny ability to really understand and optimize UX. In a market, where the difference between a successful app and a failure can come down to eliminating a few extra clicks and swipes, a strong Workflow Warrior is a precious addition to any development team. And these PMs can be every bit as valuable improving internal processes.
But there’s a downside. According to Ulrich, users may not always be willing to try these new workflows, even if they’re more efficient.
“Old workflows are addictive because they are familiar; there will often be a switching cost for users even if your new tool is better in the long run.”
We’d add that users aren’t always after efficiency. An app may appeal to users because they find it aesthetically appealing, or because it matches the way they think about a certain process. They may even value the constraints or limits on a workflow.
For example, musicians often use apps modeled after vintage hardware. In most cases, it’s easy to create an app that does everything the original does, but with an easier workflow and/or more options. However, a user looking for an emulation of a classic synthesizer typically doesn’t want more efficiency — they want the same features with the same workflow.
Value your Workflow Warriors, but make sure their perspective is backed by good customer profiling. Your UI design priorities may have to go beyond simplicity to give your users what they want.
Ulrich lists three different technical specializations: Platform Product Managers, Data and AI Product Managers, and Mobile Product Managers. However, there are many more unique technical skill sets you might be looking for in a mobile app product manager, such as expertise in a particular platform, a development or design paradigm, or manufacturing technology.
However, as Technical Specialists, these product managers all tend to be motivated by building things. They understand use cases and technology and have a knack for finding novel solutions to difficult user problems.
However, they may not understand marketing and scale. Technical Specialists can end up focusing on building new solutions, and not thinking about how you’ll deliver them to a mass audience or maintain them in the long run.
With a Technical Specialist, the risk is giving them too large of a role in decision-making — letting their voice drown out your other employees. Even early in the product lifecycle, it’s important to always keep monetization, marketing and adoption in mind along with product development.
Product Managers: Thinking Beyond Type
No PM fits their position perfectly on the first day. To find the right person, you may have to make difficult decisions, balancing skills, and experience against management approach and personality. Try to find someone who is resourceful and flexible enough to adapt. You might be surprised by how quickly your manager — and your company — can grow.
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